The Art of Commissioning Craft with John Wheeldon

All around the British Isles, our expert makers - spanning a vast anthology of craft disciplines - are poised to create enduring pieces of exquisite beauty and individuality for discerning clients who desire something completely bespoke.

Over the coming months, we will be sharing with you extraordinary stories of craft commissioning and provide you with a window into this inspiring world. One which enables the creation of personal, contemporary craft pieces that are masterfully created by one of our talented makers.

To shine some light on exactly how the process works, we have invited both our makers and Craft Patrons to share their experiences of commissioning craft at The New Craftsmen.

This week, we hear from one of our private clients, Jack Lewis, and ceramicist John Wheeldon, who worked carefully to Jack’s brief in order to create a characterful solution to house his indoor plants. The process was an equally enriching experience for both maker and patron, resulting in an elegant trio of custom-glazed Jardinieres.

The Art of Commissioning Craft


Jack

1. What inspired you to commission a craft maker for this brief?

I wanted to create some pots for my house plants which were a bit out of the ordinary. House plants are often sidelined and viewed merely as ornaments in the home; they sit in monolithic blocky pots which have zero character. For a while, I had been playing around with this idea of glazed earthy green greek amphora (with a Constance Spry twist), which made you want to interact and pick up your plant (the idea of sturdy yet elegant handles). I knew this was something I would not find off the shelf, so I turned to The New Craftsmen, in search of a maker who could breathe life into this idea.

2. What were the steps to choosing the right maker and what in particular drew you to John's work?

I started off by creating a simple brief, which contained reference shapes, some notes on issues related to the mechanics of water drainage (we ended up finding a really innovative solution to this) and examples of the green glazes I liked. Nicholas, the Private Client Manager, took lots of time to talk me through the process, and understand the parameters of the brief. Using her immense knowledge of the craft process, and the capabilities of each of the makers The New Craftsmen works with, Nicholas presented to me a variety of options.

One of these makers was John Wheeldon. I was instantly drawn to his work - the exceptional quality of the glazes, and playful nod to Wedgwood's style. I spent some time in the showroom on North Row looking at his work. I particularly liked how John marked each piece with his own monogram; the craftsman giving his seal of approval to each piece.

Nicholas explained more about John's process and how he had interpreted the brief I had written, and I hit go on the project.

3. What were some of the highlights of the commissioning journey with The New Craftsmen and John?

First was the innovative water drainage system we came up with. We needed to find a way to let water drain out of the pot (to prevent root rot occurring), which could also then collect in a saucer (to protect the surface the piece is placed on). However, we needed a solution which didn't compromise the overall aesthetic of the piece; we wanted the pots to have an elegantly streamlined skirt around the bottom. The age old: function versus aesthetic debate. John swiftly solved it (the benefit of working with a craft expert!) with a solution which involved constructing a hollow skirt which sat atop an elegant saucer. The drainage holes would sit elevated at the top of the skirt, allowing water to pour down (invisibly) into the saucer.

Second, getting the behind the scenes updates of the progress of the pieces from Nicholas. Seeing the pieces as they travelled through the maker's steps really brought the pieces to life.

The Art of Commissioning Craft


4. What value did the process bring to you personally?

The process was really fun. It felt like a creative outlet, with a clear beginning, middle and end. It also brought a greater understanding and appreciation of the craft of ceramics.

The ultimate thing of value I take away is three beautiful plant pots, which tell a great story, will last me forever (great craft really is built to last!) and has enabled me to realise a vision I had over a year ago: growing my house plants in something a bit special.

5. What advice would you give someone who is just starting to collect and/or commissioned craft?

If you are commissioning craft, don't rush the process and race to the finish line. Part of the magic of the piece (which you will no doubt have for many many years), comes from the process of commissioning it, and being a part of the journey as it goes from concept to real-life object. Take the time to look at the maker's previous work right from the start; pick up on the interesting details woven into their pieces (e.g. for me John's monogramming and the subtle beading he tactfully adds). Save the behind the scenes photos you get sent as your piece is made (they're fun to look back on when you have the finished piece).

Also, I think it is important to recognise when commissioning craft that makers use natural materials (e.g. wood, stone, clay, leather) and construct the pieces individually with their dexterous hands. This results in each finished piece varying to a lesser or greater degree in tone, shape and texture. For me this is the charm of craft, and distinguishes a craft piece from something mass produced. Cherish this.

6. What would you love to commission next?

A compartmentalised leather wash bag!


John

1. What were some of the innovations and new frontiers the brief encouraged and enabled you to explore?

The main innovation was the glaze although the scale of the pieces was larger than pots I usually make as I usually confine myself to tableware. The size of the larger piece in particular was a new diversion for me. It was thrown in two pieces, the upper bowl and the stem and was vaguely based on Greco Roman forms. My normal area of exploration is the earlier years of the industrial revolution – the time of the Lunar Society, a time of amazing scientific discovery and creativity so this was an interesting new direction for me. Owing to the scale of the piece I also developed a slightly different extrusion die for the handle. Extruding handles involves cutting a specific shaped hole in a smooth tough material – I use thick acrylic sheet and use a press to extrude clay though the die. Handles made in this way can lend a specific character to pots that I particularly enjoy.

The Art of Commissioning Craft


2. How did you and the commissioner/client decide on the materials / colourway for the piece? (If there is an interesting story there).

The client specified a rich green glaze for the pieces and this gave me the opportunity to develop a modern recipe to emulate a green glaze that was inspired by one popular during the Tudor period.

I have had a sherd of a green pot that was found in York for many years that probably came from a pottery in Scarborough although it could have been made locally and I had wanted to try a green glaze like this for a while and this gave me the opportunity. Sherds of this brilliant green glaze turn up on the Thames foreshore all the time and as an inveterate collector of pottery sherds I have been aware of this colour for many years. It was very popular during the Tudor period and would probably have been reserved for the wealthier table.

The Art of Commissioning Craft


3. What part of the commissioning process do you find the most rewarding/fulfilling?

Working with a client to turn their original ideas into a make-able form and carrying it through to a successful conclusion can be a challenge but finding a solution to the particular problem is very rewarding although it can be somewhat stressful. Very often it usually involves a move outside my comfort zone especially if I am developing new forms and colours but once the commission is complete and the client is happy with the outcome it’s a good feeling. Commissioning in this way has given me a broader palette of both forms and colours and I always feel a frisson of excitement when an interesting project is being planned.

4. What advice would you give someone interested in commissioning your work?

I would advise clients interested in commissioning to be open minded as to the outcome and not to be too prescriptive but collaborate with me to develop a workable solution that we will both be satisfied with, bearing in mind that the pieces are handmade and not industrially “perfect". My job is to listen to the client’s ideas and come up with a solution that fulfils their vision but I have to work within the limits of what is technically possible for me.

The Art of Commissioning Craft


If this has inspired you, please contact [email protected] to make an appointment and discuss the possibilities of commissioning a custom-made or bespoke piece at The New Craftsmen.